Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates was picked up as part of a vaguely themed ‘campus read’ list of three other books. With such a proven author, and with the premise of a gang of girls of high school age, the choice was an easy one. Set in fifties upstate New York, Foxfire begins with the narrator introducing herself to us. It is Maddy Wirtz, one of the original Foxfire members who is it’s first active recruit, won over by the ego and chutzpah of Margaret ‘Legs’ Sadovsky. Sadovsky is everything a high school girl wants to be; attractive, sharp, witty, and fearless emotionally to take a hedonistic path but also to isolate herself from the more painful realities of her life (her dead mother, her layabout father and his distant girlfriend.)
Together, Legs and Maddy bring in an initial three other members to the FOXFIRE gang. (Foxfire is capitalised thoughout in this book – but more about that later.) As a group, they come together to – in truth – celebrate the bond of friendship, of forming a unit and a cohesion away from the cloying adults of Hammond, their small American town in a post-war America. But on a day to day basis, FOXFIRE – the gangs official title, members of which wear homemade tattoos as a physical expression of their ‘blood sister-ship’, take action against two men who have committed sexual assaults.
When caught and found guilty of joyriding, Legs Sadovsky is sent to a state prison for young offenders where she serves a sentence of eighteen months, and returns to Hammond newly enlivened for the purpose of FOXFIRE. The girls embrace their friend and as a gang, they move into a shared house and start arranging finances, chores, and duties. It is the finances that come to dominate however, and to solve their money burdens, Legs pioneers and executes a planned kidnapping of a wealthy business owner.
Foxfire is a book that falls between two camps of commercial fiction and literary fiction. It isn’t the former due to a lack of a particularly gripping plot. Yes, Foxfire’s mission is an admirable one, but their eventual disbandment and lack of huge impact, means the commercial punch is a soft one only. Although Oates’ prose style is intense, rapid fire, with long sentences and minimal punctuation a bit like the one you are reading now, it is too self-conscious to be effective literary fiction. That’s not to say it’s not effective however – I was struck by how the writing style captured the urgency and heightened emotion that female teenage friendships often engender.
The points of caution I’d note however, is the characters of this book; Legs remains a mystery to a too-mysterious point. Maddy, we are allowed a little more of, but none of the Foxfire girls really round out and have the dimension to draw in the reader and gain our attention. The Foxfire entity becomes a character in itself – which one supposes is the point in the more blurred characters that pepper the novel – but it’s a risky play and Oates doesn’t necessarily pull it off as she intended. Similarly, there seemed to be missed opportunities to give us more of the surrounding community figures (not just the perverts), and to bring us further into Hammond. Cleverly, there IS an air of ‘post war America’ to this book, but I couldn’t think right now of an example of that – testimony to the power of the author to conjure something and show rather than tell. For that alone, kudos must be given.
Foxfire is a funny one; it’s not a book I’d necessarily recommend, nor is it one I immensely enjoyed, but I do feel a little better for having read it. It’s an interesting punt by a talented author, and even its shortcomings are not front and centre to say it’s a bad reading experience. Unconventional, and unafraid to tackle that most complex of concepts, the female friendship, I can’t serve this book an injustice and say ‘don’t bother’. Rather, give it a whirl – either way, it’ll get you thinking and pondering long after the closing chapter.
With poignancy, and class, Foxfire scores an admirable 7 out of 10.